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What We Lose When We Lose Mel And Sue

What will become of the Great British Bake Off without its kooky, filthy-punning, daffy-aunt hosts?

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A mighty wail of "Nooooo! Mel and Sue!" reverberated throughout social media feeds this week. If you're not a fan of the The Great British Bake Off, you might have wondered why so many otherwise reasonable people were mourning a casting change as if it were the death of a family member. Comedians Mel Giedroyc and Sue Perkins are the hosts of a reality show for British amateur bakers, and are not somehow related to all your friends simultaneously. But for Bake Off devotees, they do feel like kin.

On Monday, Bake Off's producers revealed that the show would be moving from the UK's BBC One, the public television station where it currently airs, to the commercial station Channel 4. And on Tuesday, Mel and Sue announced that, when the show moved on, they would not be joining it. For American viewers, many of whom consume Bake Off on a multi-year delay under the name The Great British Baking Show, the nuances of the move to Channel 4 were largely lost. (Think of it as sort of the opposite of when Project Runway moved to Lifetime: Channel 4 has a younger audience and offered the production company more money, but the likely format changes could have potentially the same chilling effect on viewership.)

But the implications of Mel and Sue's departure were impossible to misunderstand. As hosts, they embodied the loving, light-hearted tone that drew so many to the show. And, except for the few truly heartless among us, their loss is impossible not to mourn.

A family does not require daffy aunts, but the Bake Off clan is a family with daffy aunts at its heart.

There's something inescapably domestic about a baking show, even one that mysteriously films in a tent outdoors. Bake Off nods to this domesticity with its opening credits, which show a woman putting the finishing touches on a cake while her toddler eats and plays with a loaf of bread. The contestants are amateur bakers, referred to often as explicitly "home bakers," and they call on skills that they honed cooking for and with their families. But it's not just this fictional mom from the credits, or the heirloom recipes, or the copious B-roll shots of the contestants baking for their actual children, that makes Bake Off feel particularly homey. It's the way that the chemistry of the show makes everyone involved feel like a family. The bakers' competition is a kind of sibling rivalry, driven primarily by approval—a genuine conflict, but never a vicious one. The judges, Mary Berry and Paul Hollywood, fill the role of demanding but supportive parents: loving disciplinarians who aren't mad, just disappointed.

And then we have Mel and Sue. If Paul and Mary are the mom and dad of Bake Off, then Mel and Sue are its daffy aunts. They carom around the tent sticking their literal fingers in everyone's literal pie. Their slightly raunchy puns—like dad jokes just a little dirtier than ones your dad would actually make—are shameless and wholehearted, a veritable palace of corn. It's hard to make an off-color joke stand out in a competition where "soggy bottom" is a legitimate critique of a baked good, but Mel and Sue's efforts—"get those lady's fingers soggy," "it's time to grease your muffin tray and grab your jugs"—succeed.

Mel and Sue aren't just hosts who occasionally appear to announce something official; they're loving chaos demons, accidentally sticking an elbow in an English muffin here, knocking over a tower of biscuits there, yelling "get a ruddy grip!" at a contestant (but only, it should be noted, at her request). Even their more irritating tendencies are the product of enthusiasm, familial inside jokes gone too far. The "On your mark, get set, bake!" line that they use to kick off a challenge has evolved over the seasons into a sort of whoop-growl, like a yodeling werewolf, and it's awful, but what will we ever do without it?

This, in a nutshell, is how Bake Off fans are reacting to the departure of Mel and Sue: What will we do without them? A family does not require daffy aunts, but the Bake Off clan is a family with daffy aunts at its heart; it can no more stand to lose them than the Addamses could lose Uncle Fester. (I do want to note that the aunt metaphor has one exception: You may remember the time that Sue and season 4 contestant Ruby flirted awkwardly about wedding cakes. Maybe, like me, you screamed, rewound, watched again, and screamed again. Sue is not Ruby's aunt.)

If Bake Off stands out for creating drama on the basis of skill instead of interpersonal agita, it is Mel and Sue who make it that way.

Bake Off can exist as a show without Mel and Sue, in the sense that a show can still exist in which British bakers cook in a tent and Mary says their cake has a lovely crumb. But the fact that the show feels like a family has always been an inextricable part of its charm, the core of the warmth and humanity that sets it above other reality shows. There are whispers now that Mary and Paul may leave the show as well, at which point Bake Off would essentially be a smoking crater with the tattered remains of a tent and a bunch of ovens inside. Losing Mom and Dad (and maybe replacing them with Jamie Oliver, gag me) would certainly signal the end of the original Bake Off dynasty. Even Paul and Mary believe the show can't work without Mel and Sue.

Here's something you might not know about Mel and Sue: they nearly quit once before. Last year, while promoting her memoir, Sue revealed that she and Mel walked off the set during Bake Off's first season because the producers were trying to coax human-interest drama—and the inevitable tears—out of contestants. "We felt uncomfortable with it, and we said 'We don't think you've got the right presenters,'" Sue told the Telegraph. "I'm proud that we did that, because what we were saying was 'Let's try and do this a different way'—and no one ever cried again. Maybe they cry because their soufflé collapsed, but nobody's crying because someone's going 'Does this mean a lot about your grandmother?'" Bringing up dead relatives at stressful times is a time-honored technique for introducing tension into a television show, but it's no way to treat your family.

Here's another thing you might not know: When contestants do cry—out of frustration or disappointment, generally—Mel and Sue stand near them and use un-airable language so the embarrassing footage is tainted, and won't make it into the final edit. "If we see them crying or something," Sue told the Guardian, "Mel and I will go over there and put our coats over them, or swear a lot because we know then that the film won't be able to be used."

If Bake Off stands out among reality shows for its gentleness, for creating genuine tension and drama purely on the basis of skill instead of interpersonal agita, it is Mel and Sue who make it that way. Paul and Mary may set the standards and choose who stays and who goes home, but Mel and Sue are the ones who look out for the contestants as human beings. They have spread mother-hen wings over their brood of bakers, and in the process, helped create a model for reality TV that protects, not exploits, people's mental health and emotional integrity.

And this is the heart of Bake Off's appeal: for a while, it lets you enter that protected space. Most people's families are disappointing sometimes, and even the happiest don't offer reliable and uncomplicated resolution. TV families have always existed to make up for this deficiency. They allow you to exist for half an hour or so as a Brady, or a Keaton, or a Banks, or a Belcher, a member of a tightly-knit clan that will always have your back. With scripted shows, the fantasy carries a formulaic and artificial tang, which suits some viewers. But I prefer the messier (but still idealized) family of Bake Off, with all its challenges, weird werewolf barks, and corny, corny jokes. A family that protects you from being exploited or manipulated, even when the water you swim in is competition and strife? That speaks to me.

And Mel and Sue, with their naughty puns, with their sisterly partnership born all the way back in college, are a cornerstone of that. They are inviting viewers into their very real, almost familial relationship. No wonder they explained their decision to leave the show as "we're not going with the dough"—this is just a job, to be sure, but it's one with emotional weight.

In her memoir, Sue tried to put into words the fundamentally inexpressible affinity she and Mel share: "Sometimes when we're drunk we'll try and articulate all that stuff—the awkward stuff that sits at the margins of love and friendship," she writes. "But mainly we leave it alone, leave it all unsaid and carry on regardless in a thoroughly British fashion. What I do know is that this kinship will always remain. It is constant. It is a love that cannot be weathered, not by time, not by circumstance."

It's also a love we, the Bake Off audience, temporarily got to feel part of, a kinship that expanded to cover twelve flustered amateurs and a patrician but motherly cookery writer and an exacting paternal baker and a viewing audience of millions. A love that anchored one of television's warmest families. A family that will never be the same again.

Jess Zimmerman is a writer and editor who lives with a dog and a human in Brooklyn. She has written for Hazlitt, the New Republic, the Guardian, the Hairpin, Catapult, and others, and identifies as Chaotic Good.

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